Family relishes berries at harvest

October 05, 2005|By NANCY BAGGETT | NANCY BAGGETT,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It's harvest time and I'm standing at the edge of a southeastern New Jersey cranberry bog bedazzled by the colors -- a glittering ruby sea under a swatch of aquamarine sky.

When I look down, I can see thousands upon thousands of jewellike fruits floating on the water surface and viny, fine-leafed plants submerged several feet below.

Called "crane berries" by Dutch immigrants because their white blooms possessed long, beak-shaped stamens, these native berries of the heath family appear to be completely aquatic. But as my guide, 81-year-old retired cranberry grower Tom Darlington, says, things are not always what they seem.

"Modern cranberry cultivation takes a lot of water. But we have to flood and drain the bogs at just the right time," he says. Darlington, whose son, Joe, is the fifth generation cultivating cranberries at this place called Whitesbog, nods toward a tidy, man-made row of bogs.

One is nearly dry and a second is filling with water arriving through a sluice he calls a "gate," which connects to a third. "Once we flood, we have to work quickly. Wet berries are susceptible to spoilage. And the plants die if underwater more than a day or so," he says. He adds that the water is pumped in from reservoirs formed by dammed-up streams and rivers. A vast aquifer under eastern New Jersey feeds the river system.

Darlington explains that a machine with rotating wheels churns the water and shakes loose the buoyant berries, which then surface. Flexible yellow booms -- also used by the oil industry to contain spills -- corral the cranberries and draw them to a conveyor belt. It then totes them up into a waiting truck that takes them to the farm's central cleaning facility. Larger trucks later rush them to the local Ocean Spray processing plant. "It's a farmers' co-operative we're members of," he says.

The carefully choreographed "wet harvesting" that occurs each October dates to the 1960s, and Darlington says that 95 percent of America's cranberries are harvested this way.

Wet-picked berries are used for making juice and sauce; dry-picked fruits are packed in plastic bags and sold fresh and whole in grocery stores each autumn. He points out that his family steadfastly supports its product by serving cranberry juice cocktail "every day of the year," as well as by making a fresh cranberry relish and his Aunt Elizabeth's heirloom steamed cranberry pudding for Thanksgiving.

Darlington's tour covers modern cranberry cultivation, but Whitesbog, a 3,000-acre historic property now mostly state-owned and partly leased back to his family, has a bigger, juicier story to tell.

It chronicles how the wild berries -- described in 1689 by Trenton-area settler Mahlon Stacey as "excellent" in a sauce for game and "better to make tarts" than gooseberries or cherries -- ultimately spawned a vibrant local business.

The story also highlights how the indigenous cranberry became an important American agricultural crop, and how technological advances in farming have effected change. Though Darlington doesn't point it out, his details also give a picture of a long line of family members with energy and vision.

His ancestors arrived in what is now New Jersey in the 1700s, but the family's cranberry saga begins in the 1850s with Darlington's great-grandfather, James A. Fenwick.

He noticed that cranberries thrived in gouges left from mining around the nearby Hanover Iron Furnace (now the site of Fort Dix). In 1857, Fenwick purchased and fenced some so-called "worthless" mined-out land and began charging customers to pick their own cranberries each fall.

`White's Folly'

Fenwick's son-in-law, J.J. White (Darlington's grandfather), expanded the holdings, becoming the first area grower to dig bogs and cultivate cranberries where they didn't appear naturally. "At first Grandfather's idea was considered so foolish people called it `White's Folly,' " Darlington says.

In 1870, J.J. White wrote a research work titled Cranberry Culture. Darlington's grandmother, Mary, contributed the illustrations. The book became a standard 19th-century technical guide and helped spawn a thriving cranberry industry in the region.

Waving a weathered hand toward the bog bright with bobbing berries, Darlington adds that by the turn of the century, the J.J. White Co. was the state's largest cranberry operation.

Eventually, it included a company town with a general store (now restored and open to the public), worker housing and school; a cranberry sorting and packing building; a barrel-assembly shop; and a cavernous warehouse (also on-site) said to store 20,000 barrels.

"The industry still measures yields in terms of barrels -- each held 100 pounds of cranberries -- even though we haven't used barrels since the 1920s," Darlington says.

The once-essential shipping containers have so completely disappeared that he spent several years searching for one to go with the company's old set of coopering tools.

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